Sex, being such an obvious component of man-woman relationships, is a topic that occurs broadly when I examine gender inequality: the power dynamics, the social expectations, and so forth. Rarely do I discuss sex itself because the only reliable perspective I have on the subject is my own and that always felt far too personal as a subject for a piece.
Then I saw this piece by the Good Men Project. (Brief aside, I discovered the Good Men Project through our mutual support of the HeForShe initiative and endorse them in general, not just as the authors of this one piece. Check them out here.)
The piece, which I will not summarise in detail and instead encourage you to read for yourself, discusses matters like the pressure on men both to have and to desire sex, and an important concept associated with actual heterosexual male need – a safe harbour. This refers to an emotional/mental need rather than a purely physical one, the sense of respite from the hyper-competitive world of “manliness”, and that set my mind ablaze thinking about my relationship specifically with sex.
Discussing this requires, I think, two or three preliminary pieces of information. First, I seemed to discover earlier than most my interest in women. Around the time adults first ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” (a question I still cannot adequately answer), I had already decided “husband and father”. I liked girls despite the supposed cootie epidemic and knew that I wanted to break gender lines and be their friend. I knew that I wanted to have a special relationship with one in particular.
First and a half, I was nervous about what that “special relationship” would entail. I was aware of sex but that is not what I meant. By special relationship I meant the commitment that two people make to one another; you know, the forsaking all others bit. I loved the idea that, “There are a lot of amazing women in the world, but I am going to set aside parts of myself that are yours alone.” The physical side of this, which I will discuss in a moment, terrified me.
Second, as the cootie epidemic calmed and everyone seemed to awaken to relationships, I became acutely aware of the world of competition the Good Men Project describes in its piece. Boys changed their behaviour, not just towards the girls but towards other boys if the context required it (this is how I realised the issue was competition regarding girls and not “maturity”).
Boys became aggressive and sometimes cruel towards one another as a means of peacocking when girls were around or they had the chance to cut down a competitor. Often no malice existed between the parties, but it was a sense of social obligation to assert dominance to establish that one was “more valuable” to the girls than another.
I rebelled against those games immediately. Because I am a “better” man? No, at the time I had zero experience with sex or relationships and plenty of hard lessons to learn ahead of me. No, for that rebellion I can thank my obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. The issue was not that men had to “prove themselves” to women. At the time, I absolutely believed that to be the case. I rebelled because it seemed such a dishonest way to go about it. The subtext was asserting dominance and proving one’s value to women – the text itself the feud. They had to invent some reason for the contest and could never admit its true purpose. That annoyed me and I wanted no part.
A similar subtext was true with women. I generally resisted the temptation to approach a girl I found attractive because that was the subtext of the conversation. Do we talk regularly? Are we friends? No. My principal motivation for coming over here has nothing to do with who you are as a person because, right now, I have no idea who you are as a person. I think you’re pretty and I am hoping who you are as a person is agreeable to me. I abhorred that subtext.
A Background in Awkward
I abhorred that subtext because it had everything to do with everything that was wrong about interpersonal relationships. Yes, an aspect of the interpersonal relationship is how I feel about who you are. That matters. A bigger aspect of the relationship is the who you are as a person: a separate human being with agency, autonomy, a personality, wants, needs, and desires all your own.
That subtext to me was abhorrent because it placed no value on the latter. It was all about one’s utility to me, one’s ability to satisfy some need of mine. That need was not necessarily physical, as I will discuss, but with the motivation to approach a girl or woman in this context being, “I think you’re attractive,” who could deny one’s inference that the need was sexual?
I shall never forget my “first girlfriend”, a wonderful young lady I knew for years and began “dating” in the fourth grade. I use quotes because we were a couple in name only; in practice we were friends. Dating consisted of attending school dances together and sharing all of the slow songs with one another. That was our exclusivity.
And those moments filled me with dread. Unlike some marathon runners, I was aware of personal boundaries from that early age. I knew touching people without permission was inappropriate and that touching certain places was especially offensive.
This was a dance though, and that would require certain socially acceptable breaches of the rule. We danced in typical fashion for young children. Her wrists rested on my shoulders, alongside my neck. My hands rested on her waist. Not her hips, because that was far too close to her butt and seemed opportunistic, but on her waist and nearer her back.
Then came the dance when things escalated. She wanted to dance fully embraced with me and guided me reassuringly into her body. Her arms wrapped around my neck and held my head close to hers. Her chest pressed against mine and I could feel her heart beating, and again with my hand as it rested on her back. This all terrified me. My body contacted her chest and I had no idea where an appropriate place was for my hands. Too low and again it seems like I am trying to cop a feel. Too high felt impersonal and awkward. In the middle seemed natural, but I was also aware, because of her heart, that my hand was hovering around where her bra clasp would be. If I’m thinking, “Should my hand be here?” then certainly she might be thinking, “Why is his hand there?”
Worse still, with our bodies pressed together our hips had also come together. “I should not be this close to her” my Irish Catholic-raised mind kept repeating. I enjoyed it, and that only added to the anxiety. “What if I enjoy it too much and start to get aroused?” I worried. “Obviously she would notice that, and it might well offend her!” One of the great ironies of male anatomy, rather like anxiety now that I think about it, is that asking oneself that question is the perfect way for the body to respond, “Aroused? Is that what we’re doing?”
“Think about literally anything else,” I immediately told myself. In attempting to change my thinking I imagined I was keeping cool and controlling the situation. At the same time, I imagined that I looked a mess to her. Standing awkwardly trying not to sweat profusely in my anxiety, wearing that strange smile one does that attempts to convey “I’m fine” when clearly one is in distress.
A Rebound and a Lesson
That cautiousness betrayed me a bit. In the sixth grade, she “broke up” with me, quiet sweetly, because she wanted, you know, an actual relationship and my idea of that consisted of hand-holding and going to the school dances. We had not kissed and did not date beyond going to those school functions. Bless her for sticking it out as long as she did.
Then nothing. Others started dating and hooking up with classmates. I had crushes but no acceptable way, to me, of broaching that. A couple of people liked me and I had no interest. So romantically my life became a complete drought until senior year of high school. That kicked off the first everything: first kiss, first make-out, and first time having sex, all with one person I liked very much.
Oh, and one person who seemed aware of my personality enough to initiate everything; otherwise, none of those things would have happened either. She brought the comfort of, “We both want this, so it’s fine to cross that line.” You know, consent.
When we broke up about a year later, my first real heartbreak, I went into a bit of a spin. These were all new, mostly negative emotions and I did not know how to cope.
So when a pretty young woman at work batted her eyes and pursued me somewhat aggressively, I caved easy. She found me cute. I don’t know that it truly mattered if I was boyfriend material or her type – I was attractive and she wanted something physical. It began slow and escalated quickly, with her realising how shy I was about sexuality. She became more assertive each day because I think it was clear to her that I had the desire but would not allow it. I wanted to kiss her but wouldn’t. So she would tease it, flaunting the option of kissing her until the day she decided, “Okay, enough teasing. I want this, too and it’s not happening,” and kissed me.
The kiss became making out over the next few days and then came the afternoon at her house. I remember some of the details vividly. See, they had a dog who was playful but loud. We came home in the afternoon after class to the dog reacting excitedly, jumping on me and demanding to play.
“No, you go in here,” she said, guiding the dog to its play area. Then, turning to me, she said, “He’s mine,” and pushed me down onto the couch and we began kissing. The assertiveness of it all aroused me and, well, that’s difficult to hide when you’re a man. She stopped kissing me for a minute and whispered, “Someone’s excited,” as she slid her hips suggestively against me.
I don’t recall being able to form words at that particular moment.
“Tomorrow,” she whispered and went back to kissing me.
And that is exactly what came to pass. We went to her house the next day once again and some brief kissing turned immediately to sex.
Then something horrible happened. We had a fantastic time but the moment I finished I felt all enthusiasm disappear. Everything felt empty. We had planned to have sex and that happened, so now what? That’s when it dawned on me. This whole thing began with sexuality – the teasing, the kissing. It’s all been about this whether we wanted to admit it or not. Now it’s happened and we have nothing left.
We continued to date but only for a short time after that. All sentiment was gone. If we were not being sexual with one another, there was no meaning to the relationship. We did not seem to have much in common.
“If I met someone I genuinely liked as a partner, I would not be able to pursue the relationship because I committed to this one,” I realised. Things had to end after that.
Sex Isn’t Great
That relationship became a transformative moment in my life. Not only did I learn in my rebound that if one wants a relationship that a relationship must exist before sex (I do not begrudge people who consent to get together for the exclusive purpose of sex), but also that sex, well, it wasn’t that great.
Sure, sex feels good and there is something psychologically satisfying about an orgasm, but in terms of pure, hedonistic pleasure the only part of sex that I ever found mind-blowing was the few moments just prior to an orgasm when it becomes an inevitability and the mental focus of trying to prolong that feeling. Everything else is just nice. Like, good back massage or touching a puppy’s fur nice. It’s not the epitome of human sensory experience that society seemed to be demanding I agree it was.
It opened my eyes to other things and, if I may be so crude, frank, and possibly arrogant, made me better at sex. In many ways it’s not unlike my love of sports.
Let me explain, I love ice hockey. A wrist shot catching the inside of the metal post and making that unmistakable clang before it ripples the net and sends the goalie’s water bottle flying. The scraping noise of skates cutting the ice, the clack of the blades hitting the surface. The crack of pucks contacting the blade of the stick. All of these things are the height of sensory experience to me.
What makes me love the game though is the intellectual. I love the strategy. Sure, in American football they devise a strategy and line up for plays with each snap. Ice hockey though…it’s fast. Teams run set plays off of face-offs, but much of the game is in-play adjustment and creativity. Imagine football if part of the ongoing action was attempting to get all 11 players into some sort of strategic formation mid-play rather than between?
I soon realised the same was true of sex. Some of the sensory stuff was nice, but what felt amazing was the emotional and mental connection. To touch a partner and have them just enjoy it was one thing; to adjust the touch and see their visceral response was another. Again, it was less the sense of “this feels better to her than that did” and the emotional, intellectual connection. I had learned something on the fly about this person and she communicated that back to me. We felt safe. We trusted one another. We explored what essentially mattered to the other person. It was selfless and, in being so, self satisfying.
The selflessness is very much selfish. I also found it liberating. My earliest relationships came with an unhealthy dose of jealousy and insecurity. “Will she stay with me? Will she cheat on me? Why would she stay with me?”
What came with the selflessness was a strong sense of trust and security – the safe harbour discussed in the Good Men Project piece.
This is what we share. We learned this about one another and built a relationship that is not purely sexual. We share an emotional and intellectual connection as well as we communicate ourselves. That transcends sex itself because, well, sex isn’t that great.
I could go out tomorrow and find a new conquest, objectify women for the purposes of sex in that hyper-masculine, competitive search to satisfy a social expectation of male sexuality and dominance. It would feel good – physically.
It would not feel great and I would set aside any opportunity for great. Why? Because it involves a breach of trust. Everything about the situation I described above that builds trust becomes void when the other person starts to feel it’s not special. Then it feels like an angle, a gimmick, a tactic. (Not a criticism of polygamy, though I could not be in that sort of relationship – it’s a criticism of using others for selfish, physical reasons rather than mutual connection.)
There is a sensory, sensual appeal to the closeness. How someone tastes during a kiss. The feel of fingertips across a collarbone, down an arm, or across a thigh. The smell of perfume, cologne, soap, shampoo on their hair, or even natural scent. The sound of deep, slow breaths and small moans.
What is great though is the respite two people create against everything else. In those moments they are the only two people in the world, existing solely for one another and engrossed in everything about the other person. One feels seen, heard, trusted, safe, valued, and treasured. It’s the height of selflessness and selfishness, the height of the human condition. Everything else we do is a lesser attempt to feel those things.
And of course, please check out the Good Men Project article linked at the beginning, too!